The snake that re-grows its heads when you need it to
By Darius Van Rhuehl
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
I hate wires. I dream of a wireless studio. You see, I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of studio-spaghetti—and without the complementary jar of Ragu—as has anyone who’s ever built a studio. Oh, and I’m not a big fan of soldering either. Burnt fingers aside, to solder properly, you must be born with three hands minimum, and nothing is more frustrating than trying to find a cold solder joint somewhere in the midst of a 96-point patchbay. Why am I ranting? I’m moving my studio and bought some new gear to add to it. Soon I’ll be in wire straits and I’m hoping the Planet Waves Modular Snake will deliver me from the wiry pits of hell.
Open the patchbay doors Hal . . .
Coincidently, just prior to my move, the task of reviewing Planet Waves’ modular snakes was being passed around the Musician’s Friend staff writer’s meeting room. No slam against wires in general, but they’re really not that much fun to review. I mean, what can you possibly say about a cable? “I plugged that puppy in, and sure enough, it stayed plugged in.” But I volunteered anyway. No, not taking one for the team, my motives were purely selfish. The Modular Snake looks like a perfect solution to spaghetti madness—and I needed to find out.
Looking at the core cables for the Modular Snake provided an immediate epiphany. It was a vision of Bill Putnam Sr., Mr. Rupert Neve, and Yoda (how’d he get in there?) hovering over my console saying, “D-Sub patchbay, my boy, D-Sub patchbay”—simplicity itself with the Modular Snake Core cables. The core cables come in three sizes, 5', 10', and 25', and have male D-Sub connectors at both ends. They’re also very well constructed and feature a modern-looking connector with gold-plated Amphenol pins. To build your custom snake, Planet Waves offers four breakout cables; 8 x TRS, 8 x XLR male, 8 x XLR female, and a 4 x stereo AES/EBU (4 XLRF/4 XLRM). The breakouts fit snugly and have hand-screws to lock them in place.
Done in 60 seconds
The system I chose for AD/DA was the SSL Alpha Link SX with 24 analog and 24 AES/EBU digital channels terminated to 25-pin D-Sub connectors. To connect the Alpha Link’s analog I/O, I simply plugged six 5' core cables into it and the patchbay (D-Sub to D-Sub). Voilà! 48 patch-points connected and hours of soldering evaporated like a nasty vampire in the sunlight (and I’m talking really mean sunlight with lots of UV). For the AES channels, three core cables with AES breakout connectors did the trick. Obviously, I could have bought preconfigured D-Sub to AES cables, but if the length needs to be changed, I can swap core cables without having to buy new snakes or cannibalize my old ones. Or, if need be, I can repurpose those cables with different breakout connectors.
Now the outboard gear: Here’s where the Modular Snake proved to be worth its weight in gold-plated connectors. The space I had allocated for my MOTU 2408mkIII, which would now serve as a multichannel soundcard for a dedicated virtual instruments computer, wound up being swapped with a four-channel Massenburg 8304 preamp. The 2408mkIII has 8 x TRS I/O, whereas the Massenburg has four XLR ins (and four XLR out). While it isn’t proper patchbay procedure, I decided to swap out the eight-channel TRS for the AES breakout connector (4 XLRM/4 XLRF) and have the I/O of the Massenburg side by side on the patchbay instead of top to bottom. Then, after doing some ergonomic testing, I decided that I didn’t like having the input and output in-line on the patch bay, and swapped the Massenburg with an eight-channel Audient ASP008 preamp with eight XLR in and 25-pin D-Sub out. All I had to do was switch the AES/EBU breakout for an eight XLR male breakout, which put all my inputs on the top row of the patchbay, remove the TRS output breakout, and use the Core’s D-Sub. Best of all, I made all of those changes in minutes without having to pull the patchbays. For the rest of my gear, I simply ran core cables to the racks and connected breakout cables as needed.
Coincidentally (or perhaps karmatically), I was talking with a producer/engineer friend of mine who’s moving his L.A. studio and facing the same dilemma. He bought a new console with integrated patchbays and spent the last few weeks letting the cables decide where he would put his gear. Being a creative type, and not so handy with soldering (most people aren’t), he also had to hire someone to solder the patchbays. Unfortunately, when we had our discussion, he hadn’t heard about the Modular Snakes. Hoping to stave off that sinking “If only I heard about this a week ago” feeling that is all too familiar in the studio world, my friend tried to rationalize with the age old, “Yeah, but it has an extra connector in the signal path.” For his sake I decided to leave it at that, but therein lay the basis for another test. Is there an audible difference in sound quality between Modular Snakes and preconfigured snakes?
I plugged a snake I currently use into channels 1-8 of the Alpha Link, and the Modular Snake into 9-16. From there I ran the same eight tracks of material that was recorded in a world-class studio through both snakes. Did I hear a difference? No, and my current snake has been used to make records. End of the “extra connector in the signal path” discussion.
Accept no D-Substitute
With so many multichannel AD/DA converters, preamps, and audio interfaces on the market with only D-sub connectors for I/O, the Modular Snake makes perfect sense. But to me, its greatest advantage is the ability to make custom snakes as needed. Stocking some Core cables and at least two of each breakout option solves any unanticipated wiring problem with elegant, cost-effective simplicity. If you’re setting up a studio for the first time, I highly recommend starting with Modular Snakes. The plain and simple fact is that your setup is going to continually change. Accommodating those changes can mean either hours of soldering and console/rack diving, or be as simple as swapping out a breakout cable. Your choice.
Features & Specs
- Interchangeable breakouts for easy and flexible wiring options
- 24 possible snake configurations
- DB25 Modular Snake Core Cables:
- 5' Core Cable
- 10' Core Cable
- 25' Core Cable
- 8-Channel XLR Female Breakout
- 8-Channel XLR Male Breakout
- 8-Channel 1/4" TRS Breakout
- AES/EBU Breakout
- Industry-standard analog pin-out
- Gold-plated Amphenol connectors
- Oxygen-free copper conductors
- 100% shielding for low noise and low signal loss